IN THE PERSIAN GULF today, the United States has committed the largest concentration of men and equipment overseas since the Vietnam War. Yet a look at recent American foreign military interventions, including experience thus far in the Gulf, shows that neither politicians nor military leaders remember their history lessons. Specifically:
Planners have forgotten the first rule of military operations. It goes by the acronym KISS meaning Keep it Simple, Stupid.
A "no-fault" mentality, a refusal to accept even the possibility of serious, avoidable error, keeps political and military leaders from honestly examining the sources of foul-ups and assigning blame in time-honored military tradition.
As a result of these and other factors, mistakes have repeated time and time again and are once more being repeated in the Gulf.
The KISS rule casts no aspersion on the mental abilities of fighting men or their commanders. On the contrary it is a wise distillation of centuries of military experience demonstrating that in warfare, the enemy never reacts exactly as expected, the weapons rarely work as planned and the command and control system is often at the mercy of political whim. But an effective military also must learn from its mistakes so that performance can be improved and unnecessary loss of life can be avoided.
Excessive complexity and repetition of past mistakes have characterized four key areas: intelligence, command and control, operational security and equipment. In the 1980 mission to rescue the American hostages in Iran, for example, twenty-one different agencies and commands took part. They used 51 different radio frequencies and 150 code words and call signs. There were 17 different landing zones and airfields used by units which in some cases had never met or trained together. Much of the equipment, particularly Sea Stallion helicopters now being used for minesweeping in the Gulf, were unsuitable for the operation.
Obsession with secrecy and an overly complex plan at the Desert One staging point ensured there were four commanders on the spot, who because of operational security were not allowed to wear badges of rank and so were indistinguishable from the men they were controlling.
A few years later on Oct. 23, 1983, 241 U.S. Marines were killed and more than 100 injured in Beirut by a terrorist car bomb. The disaster should not have been a complete surprise to the Pentagon because, in theweeks before the bombing, information suggesting the possibility of such an attack had been gathered by the Central Intelligence Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency and by the Intelligence Support Activity, a small and highly secret unit that is specifically designed to gather human intelligence for the military.
DIA, for example, over months had built up a comprehensive map of Beirut using reconnaisance pictures that listed every house in the vicinity of the Marine barracks and the threat its occupants represented. According to Pentagon sources familiar with the mission, neither that information nor material gathered by ISA ever actually reached marines on the ground who were the unwitting victims of turf battles within the armed services.
Subsequent investigation by Congress and a special committee headed by retired U.S. Navy Adm. Robert Long were highly critical of the command and control and intelligence capabilities of the Marines. In particular, it was pointed out by the Long Commission and by internal Pentagon reports that a political decision had been taken to send the Marines to Lebanon merely as a "presence"; they had no clear role and were, in fact, specifically restricted from gathering their own intelligence to protect themselves. Even the circumstances under which they were allowed to defend themselves were unclear.
Two days after the Marine bombing, the United States invaded Grenada. Army Rangers and Marines were committed without any accurate intelligence of the opposing forces. Evidence supplied to Congress shows that the only CIA agent covering that area was off the island at the time and refused to go back.
Intelligence suggested at one time there would be 10,000 well-armed Cubans on the island.In fact, there were fewer than a thousand of whom only 50 had received any serious military training. Once U.S. forces had landed, intelligence continued to be erratic. According to one of the Marine commanders on the island, at one point Marines were ordered to prepare for a tank assault which never materialised -- because there were no tanks on Grenada.
The invasion was carried out ostensibly to rescue several hundred U.S. medical students on the island. But the invading force was not told where the students were and one group was only rescued after a student telephoned the American command to give his location.
The obsession with security ensured that the Rangers and Marines who carried out the invasion had no knowledge of the special operations planned by Delta Force and the Navy SEALS to attack key targets such as the local radio station and to rescue the Governor General, Sir Paul Scoon. To avoid interference with the special forces, the marines were not allowed to carry out their own advanced reconnaisance.
The Marine Amphibious Unit was actually in mid Atlantic on its way to relieve their colleagues in Beirut when they received word to divert to Grenada. At the same time, a total blackout on all radio communications between the ships and from the Marines to their land headquarters was ordered. The Marines talked to each other via signal lamp but were unable to query orders with base and launched their assault using a draft plan. Only one map of the island was made available to the Marines and the only photocopier available reduced the size of that map to make the copies unreadable. The actual planning for the assault was done using a tourist map taking from a travel book in the ship's library.
Every service involved used different radios and frequencies so were unable to communicate with each other. In one famous incident, an officer on the island used his credit card to phone back to Fort Bragg to get them to radio the task force to provide covering fire.
As with Desert One, much of the equipment was unsuitable and the re-supply system also proved unable to cope. Published reports indicate that replacement equipment was sent from U.S. bases using Express Mail and took several days to reach the island.
In both Desert One and Grenada the existing military structure was considered inadequate so a special command and control system was set up which cut key experienced decision makers out of the planning. The Joint Chiefs of Staff's own Director of Logistics was kept out of key parts of the Grenada planning and it was only 22 hours before the operation began that a logistics specialist was consulted.
At the same time, the cozy nature of the relationship between senior officers on the Joint Chiefs of Staff ensured, as in Desert One, that all the different services were fully represented in each operation, irrespective of the military need.
All this could be put down to the fog of war, a catchall phrase beloved by the military that can excuse the most glaring errors. However, despite heavy loss of life and prestige, there is little evidence that the lessons of past failings have been learned.
On the contrary, any attempt to suggest that performance has been less than perfect has been strongly resisted by both the military and their political masters. For example, during a House Armed Services Ccommittee investigation into the Beirut bombing, Marine commandant Gen. Paul X Kelley, far from providing a full and accurate account of what had gone wrong, attempted to cover up for his men. The committee found that "many of the details of the attack . . . as related by General Kelley were erroneous."
Yet, Kelley continued to head the Marines until his retirement earlier this year. It is hardly surprising that with such a strong belief in a zero-defect military at the top, criticism from below is unwelcome.
A similar absence of self-criticism was noticeable in the aftermath of the Grenadan invasion. On Feb. 26, 1986, Army Secretary John Marsh told the House Appropriations Committee that the invasion "was a great success. I think as a combat operation it was a success." Gen. John Wickham, chief of staff of the Army, added: "I think they did a whale of a good job."
But to congressional critics, the intelligence community and on site military commanders, Grenada was a flawed operation that demonstrated shortcomings in planning, command and control and equipment. These points were raised by a number of serving officers who were either ignored or punished for their temerity. For example, one of the ground force commanders, a much decorated Vietnam veteran, was re-assigned to a low-level desk job as a result of his outspoken criticism of the operation.
Of course, it has not all been bad news. The military strike against Libya in April 1986 was widely hailed as a successful military operation although even there, key equipment failed to work as expected.
Recent events in the Persian Gulf suggest that for the military, business is continuing pretty much as usual. When the USS Stark was hit by an Iraqi Exocet in the Gulf last May killing 37 sailors, there was clear evidence of failures by the senior officers on board. As the Pentagon has admitted, the ship was at a low state of readiness, its radars failed to detect the incoming missile and defensive weapons systems were not fired.
The captain of the Stark, Glenn Brindel, was allowed to resign his commission rather than face a court martial. This may have been a humane decision motivated by sympathy for Brindel, but it also avoided a more detailed investigation into what orders the Stark had been given and why his ship was at such a low state of readiness.
As with previous military operations, the Gulf affair has been marked by political misjudgements, military incompetence and faulty equipment.
From the outset, administration officials made clear that they thought the risk of Iranian retaliation against the United States was unlikely and that intelligence estimates supported this view. In fact, however, the intelligence community was sounding warnings that an Iranian response was quite likely.
According to Lloyds of London, there had been 11 attacks on tankers using mines since 1981. Even so, the Pentagon had not considered mines a major threat, concentrating instead on likely attacks by Silkworm missiles and speedboats armed with rockets and machine guns. No minesweepers were included in the American fleet. The result was that the first American tanker convoy to enter the Gulf was hit by a mine and U.S. Navy escorts were redeployed in line behind the damaged oil tanker Bridgeton: the ship the American fleet had been assigned to protect.
In the resultant panic in Washington, there was no talk of resignation by senior officials (in somewhat similar circumstances, after the British foreign office failed to react to advance intelligence of the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands, the Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington resigned). Instead, a search went on for quick fixes. America has no modern minsweepers in its 600 ship navy so the allies were asked to help.
It is a measure of the shambles in which policy is being made on this issue that National Security Advisor Frank Carlucci and NSC Middle East specialist Robert Oakley first knew of the formal request to Britain for help when they read about it in the newspapers. It turned out that Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger had asked Britain for aid without consulting key White House officials.
To its allies, the Administration now appears like a rudderless ship. Even in Washington, key officials in the State Department, the intelligence community and the Pentagon feel that policy is being made hour by hour and that once again U.S. forces have been committed without a clear mission or a final objective. Having talked initially of a short term escort duty commitment, senior Administration officials now speak of maintaining a massive U.S. force in the area for at least 18 months.
From Desert One through the bombing of the Marine Barracks in Beirut to Grenada and the Gulf there are several common threads: those of repeated mistakes, an inflexible military unwilling to learn from history and a political machine incapable of understanding the effective use of force. Fortunately, these military adventures so far have been comparatively minor incidents. But they are useful indicators of what kind of performance can be expected if a serious war were to break out, perhaps on the central front in Europe.
It has often been argued that all military bureaucracies live in the past and are only prepared to fight the last war. It is only after shooting starts in earnest that paper-pushers and careerists are moved aside to make way for the men of imagination and drive who become true wartime leaders. Unfortunately, the next major war may well be over in weeks rather than years and much will depend on the nature of the political and military leadership already in place. On present form, the United States is ill-equipped to meet the challenge.
James Adams is the defense correspondent for the London Sunday Times. His forthcoming book, "Secret Armies" examining covert warfare, will be published next spring.